Could the mammoth and lucrative Outdoor Retailer shows be headed back to Salt Lake City?

Denver wrested the contract to host the events out of Utah’s grasp four years ago amid swirling national controversy over federal land use issues. But some longtime exhibitors say the Mile High City is too expensive and lacks easy access to the real outdoors as Denver’s contract with show owner Emerald Expositions nears its expiration date.

And now, Gov. Spencer Cox is throwing his weight behind a new effort to bring the shows back to Utah, touting the states bonafides in a video pitch that even offers a mild olive branch on the very protection designations that helped push the shows out of Salt Lake City.

How Salt Lake lost the Outdoor Retailer shows

After a 20-year run, Utah’s capital city lost its contract to Denver in 2017 as then-President Donald Trump’s announced plans to reduce several areas of federally protected land riled the environmental community, outdoor enthusiasts, and companies that specialize in outdoor products and services. At the center of the controversy was Trump’s declared intention to erase the 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument, created by President Barack Obama in a 2016 proclamation issued just before he left office.

Utah state legislators and then-Gov. Gary Herbert threw their weight behind the Trump plan by passing a resolution in the 2017 legislative session, declaring “strong opposition to the Bears Ears National Monument designation” and urging Trump to undo his predecessor’s executive order.

The move by Utah leaders drew immediate and widespread ire, including from Patagonia, one of the world’s largest outdoor-focused companies that is founded by legendary climber, gear innovator and conservationist Yvon Chouinard.

The Bears Ears of the Bears Ears National Monument are pictured from the air on May 8, 2017. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

In a letter protesting the public lands stance taken by Herbert and other Utah leaders, Chouinard noted his love of Utah’s outdoor spaces and said he’d “skied, climbed and fished the wild streams” of the state for years. He was also unequivocal in sharing his feelings about continuing to attend the Outdoor Retailers events amid Utah leaders’ support for Trump’s plan.

“I say enough is enough,” Chouinard wrote. “If Governor Herbert doesn’t need us, we can find a more welcoming home. Governor Herbert should direct his Attorney General to halt their plans to sue and support the historic Bears Ears National Monument. He should stop his efforts to transfer public lands to the state, which would spell disaster for Utah’s economy.

“He should show the outdoor industry he wants our business — and that he supports thousands of his constituents of all political persuasions who work in jobs supported by recreation on public lands.”

An 11th hour conference call hosted by Herbert’s office in Feb. 2017 that included representatives of the Outdoor Industry Association and some of the biggest players in the outdoor industry, including Patagonia, REI and North Face, failed to achieve a hoped-for compromise on stances when it came to land use issues and the results of the impasse were immediate and harsh.

“Salt Lake City has been hospitable to Outdoor Retailer and our industry for the past 20 years, but we are in lockstep with the outdoor community and are working on finding our new home,” said Marisa Nicholson, show director for Outdoor Retailer, following the meeting with Herbert.

Just months later, Denver was announced as the new host of the Outdoor Retailer events along with news that the contract with Salt Lake City would terminate a year early, turning the July 2017 Salt Lake City summer show into Utah’s swan song as the show’s host.

Sticker shock in the Mile High City

Denver’s debut show in January 2018 was a blockbuster and remains the biggest Outdoor Retailer event. Before running into restrictions precipitated by COVID-19 in 2020, the twice-yearly events were regularly drawing more than 20,000 participants and generating in excess of $50 million per show in economic activity for its host city.

But some retailers say the costs associated with exhibiting at the Denver-hosted shows have been significantly higher than they were in Utah and, with the current contract coming to a close in 2022, it may be time to reconsider Salt Lake City.

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Tom Adams was director of Utah’s Office of Outdoor Recreation when the storm over federal land designations erupted in 2017. Now, he’s chief operating officer for the American operations of French climbing and work-at-heights gear company Petzl.

Adams said Petzl has been a longtime exhibitor at the Outdoor Retailer events but didn’t follow the show to Denver. The decision, he said, wasn’t born out of any kind of protest stance but was simply a matter of assessing costs. A new booth, Adams said, can run from $250,000 to $1 million, and the rates for renting the space at the events “are quite high for trade shows.”

He also noted the task of getting to the actual outdoors from the exhibition space in Denver was a much bigger, and time-consuming, challenge than it was in Salt Lake City.

“I don’t know how many times, on a weekday during the Salt Lake City shows, I’d take an account out for an afternoon of ice climbing, rock climbing or making a few backcountry runs,” Adams said. “That’s just not happening in Denver.”

Bill Harmon, general manager of Utah-based portable power specialists Goal Zero, said his company has exhibited once at Outdoor Retailer since the show moved to Denver but has chosen to mostly skip it due to cost and return-on-investment considerations.

“It’s so expensive to go now,” Harmon said. “The hotel rooms are materially more expensive in Denver versus here. The booth storage costs there are much more than in Salt Lake City. And the setup costs, with the union requirements, are so much more.”

Harmon also bemoaned Denver’s location, describing it as a “mountains-adjacent city, unlike Salt Lake that is actually a mountain city.”

“I can’t overstate the access issues,” Harmon said. “We’ve got a half-dozen world-class ski resorts 25 minutes away. And, if you want, you have time to get up and go for a mountain bike ride and be back before the show even starts.

“In Denver, you can plan on spending half the day driving or on shuttles to do the same things.”

But, is Salt Lake City even in the running to recapture its Outdoor Retailer host duties?

People attend the Outdoor Retailers show Aug. 2, 2012, in Salt Lake City. | Tom Smart, Deseret News

An invitation to come back to Salt Lake City

Representatives of Visit Salt Lake said they were unable to provide any details or status reports on the renewed effort to bring the events back to Utah, but did confirm that conversations on the matter were ongoing.

While Trump followed through, mostly, with his plan, reducing the Bears Ears monument designation by some 85% in late 2017, President Joe Biden has promised to undo Trump’s undoing of the original Obama protections. Though Cox sounds open to compromise in his taped comments, in April he said the state of Utah would likely sue if Biden decides “unilaterally” to restore or expand Utah’s national monuments without a “collaborative,” congressional solution.

“We’re working with key stakeholders and the Department of the Interior to establish sustainable ways to manage Bears Ears National Monument and other cherished public lands,” Cox said in the video. “The outdoor industry is important to Utah and the Outdoor Retailer trade show is important to Utah.

“We invite you back and we’ll take great care of you.”

Marisa Nicholson, Outdoor Retailer senior vice president and show director, said the new host contract would likely be announced by the end of this year and, as part of the process, her organization worked to assess the opinions of its membership when it comes to deciding if the trade shows pull up stakes for new digs or remain in Denver. She noted Salt Lake City is in the running along with a trio of other candidates in addition to Denver.

The BLM’s Gary Torres and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland hike to the Butler Wash Ruins in Bears Ears National Monument.
Gary Torres, Bureau of Land Management district manager for southeast Utah, left, and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland hike to the Butler Wash Ruins in Bears Ears National Monument in San Juan County on April 8, 2021. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“This summer we surveyed the industry to evaluate both venue and time frame for both the summer and winter events,” Nicholson wrote in an email response to questions from the Deseret News. “It’s always a big part of the planning process, and we conducted surveys throughout our time in Utah as well.

“The cities included in this latest survey were Anaheim, Denver, Las Vegas, Orlando, and Salt Lake City. It’s cities with convention center infrastructure and services to host large-scale events and cities where people can easily access the outdoors which is incredibly important to our community.”

Visit Denver, like Visit Salt Lake, is playing its cards close to the vest amid live contract competition for the Outdoor Retailer events, but Visit Denver President and CEO Richard Scharf waxed optimistic for his city’s prospects to retain its contract in a statement shared with the Deseret News.

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“Four years ago, the outdoor industry selected Denver because it is a top-tier convention city with a world-class airport and 12,000 rooms within walking distance of a state-of-the-art convention center, all in a state that lives the values of the industry — none of which has changed since then,” Scharf said. “Though the last year and a half has been a difficult time for the convention industry, which was disproportionately impacted by COVID, the Outdoor Retailer shows have been a great addition to Denver’s robust convention market, and we look forward to continuing this mutually successful relationship.”

While Biden’s pledge to restore Obama-era land protections has moved the kettle of industry dissent off the front burner, Nicholson noted land preservation issues are always a matter of concern for members of the outdoor industry and remain among the many considerations taken into account when selecting the best location for the industry’s biggest trade gatherings.

“Public lands access and preservation is the foundation of our industry,” Nicholson said. “We’re a community of advocates, working to nurture these outdoor spaces where we work and recreate. It’s our livelihood. So, yes, policies around public lands are going to come into play.

“The secret sauce of Outdoor Retailer is that it is about more than the business done there, and we have to balance the industry’s varied needs. We are 100% committed to unifying the industry so we can collectively work toward improving the outdoor experience and ensuring the outdoors are welcoming and accessible through public lands.”

Retailers and enthusiasts demo products at the Outdoor Retailers All Mountain Demo at Solitude Mountain Resort on Jan. 18, 2012. Forty outdoor recreation brands and hundreds of specialty retailers were at Solitude for a day of winter sport product previews, hands-on gear testing and outdoor events. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
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